River Jude Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970, in Madras, Oregon. His name coming from ‘the river of life’ in Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha. While his parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz both followed a lifestyle born of the 1960s hippy movement. Both working as farm labours in a life where their roots were never truly fixed to any place.
By 1972, with River aged just two years old, the Bottoms had joined the now notorious cult of ‘The Children of God’. A religious movement grounded in indoctrination, evangelical belief and practices of ‘free love’ now known to have included child abuse. It was during this time that River became a big brother to Rain. Followed soon after by his first and only brother Joaquin and two more sisters Liberty and Summer. During their time with the cult, the family lived in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Consequently leading River to busk with his younger siblings on street corners, while attempting to spread the word of the cult.
The exact details of River’s experiences of the cult as a young pre-teen boy are clouded in soundbites and hear-say. However, River did make guarded comments in interviews relating to the possible sexual abuse he may have suffered.
Fame comes knocking
By 1978 the family had fled the destructive cult and returned to the United States in poverty. As a result living in Florida with Arlyn’s mother in a cramped house, barely suitable for a family with five children. It was during this time that River’s talent for music and performing began to shine through. Consequently taking part in local talent competitions and small TV commercials. His talent growing with each role he undertook, equally leading to larger parts in TV shows; the family moving to California to secure the potential income of River’s talent. A move that led to River’s first film alongside fellow teen star Ethan Hawke in ‘The Explorers’ (1985). However, despite high production values Explorers never quite took off at the box office. Up against the might of ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Live Aid’ on its release.
Despite the disappointing launch of Explorers, it opened the door to further films. With ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Mosquito Coast’ (1986) cementing River as one of the brightest young talents in Hollywood. His career now firmly set, while his gentle and deep thinking character subverted the normal teen idol image.
The loss of a unique talent
River sat at the front of a new wave of young Hollywood leading men. A group that included Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio. River’s acting talent often outshining his contemporaries. While his beliefs on animal welfare, veganism, equality and the environment challenged the archetypal themes of Hollywood masculinity. River inhabited the roles he played, leading to character portrayals of amazing depth and clarity. Inspiring a whole generation of young actors.
River Phoenix tragically died aged 23 on October 31, 1993 outside the Viper Club in L.A. His younger brother Joaquin, sister Rain and girlfriend Samantha Mathis at his side. While his body failed through a mixture of prescription drugs, cocaine and morphine. His death sending a shockwave through Hollywood, its golden boy, already a legend of film, dead at such a young age. The global outpouring of grief that followed was a testament to the talent, sincerity and beauty of Phoenix. A man who challenged the image of the masculinity on screen while shining brighter than any other young actor.
River left behind an enviable body of work comprising of 24 films and television appearances. His work still amazing audiences today, while his brother Joaquin continues to carry the torch of the families talent. River Phoenix changed Hollywood, and more importantly the role of men on screen, in similar way to Montgomery Clift and James Dean. His legacy and talent burnt into the fabric of modern cinema, his performances still some the finest in cinema history.
So join us as we explore the finest examples of River’s on screen work; movies that shine with River’s talent and ensure his legacy lives on.
Joe Dante’s 1985 space adventure never managed to rise to the top of the cinema charts. Launched in a week that saw Back to the Future reign supreme and Live Aid capture TV audiences. However, since its original release Explorers has continued to gain a cult following. Its mixture of children’s Sci-Fi and offbeat comedy entrancing new generations of film fans.
River was cast as the nerdy Wolfgang Muller, forever conducting experiments in his dads workshop. While Ethan Hawke was cast as the regular hero kid of the picture. Early in production it was clear to both cast and director that River was different to most other child actors. His passion for embodying his character almost excessive. While his lack of any formal education challenged but also pushed him to achieve on set. River was intent on achieving success, a drive that possibly came from the families financial position.
Explorers mixture of pop culture and science fiction may have flopped, but its warm and humour driven script is still a joy to watch. Phoenix clearly learning his craft in a film that glows with the offbeat humour. Watching Explorers today is a beautiful trip back into the innocence of 1980s film. The film capturing the changing dynamics of family, society and culture while providing a truly different science fiction journey.
Stand by Me (1986)
Based on the Stephen King novella ‘The Body’ Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is one of the greatest coming of age films ever produced. A love letter to simpler times, childhood freedom and the role of friendship in early adolescence. Stand by Me dovetails 1950’s nostalgia with a layered exploration of family, friendship, bereavement and belonging that still feels timeless and fresh.
River turned 15 on the set of Stand by Me, all the boys echoing the hormonal displacement of their characters. However, for River this mix of hormones and a desire to embrace adulthood played into his character. A boy who was a leader yet sensitive. A tough guy, yet internally hurt. His performance echoing some of his own lived experience. Phoenix embodied his character, his teenage looks resembling a young James Dean. While his innate ability to transform himself into his character shone for all to see.
However, there was also a darker side to River’s Stand by Me experience. His exposure to a world of film set possibilities and other teen stars. Leading to experimentation and emotional release. His closeted life of family opened up to a world of possibility.
Stand by Me is at times a celebration of childhood in all its boundless imagination and wonder, and at others a mourning of the transition to a darker adult world. Reiner’s direction alongside a stunning young cast is delicate, energetic, touching, and melancholy. Reminding us all of the conflict between dreams and reality as we take our first tentative steps into adult experiences. The excitement of adult ideas interlocked with a need for comfort, understanding and protection as the child and teenager collide.
Stand by Me is the final summer of childhood innocence for boys on the verge of adolescence. And in turn the final days of River’s childhood. The emotion of his past and present colliding on screen for all to see. With a performance that still sends a tingle down the spine of any viewer in its realism and emotional intelligence.
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weirs 1986 Mosquito Coast placed the young River alongside film royalty with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. Adapting the Paul Theroux novel into an onscreen journey of fanaticism, love and fear. Ford’s ‘Allie Fox‘ dragging his family across South America in search of a dream that doest exist. His colonial like views clashing with his son (Phoenix). Who while desperately trying to support his father, slowly becomes more and more distant to the views he holds.
River was not the first choice for the role of ‘Charlie’, Peter Weir set on Wil Wheaton, who played opposite River in Stand by Me. However, when Weir discovered River’s past living in Latin America and his family history of travelling. The parallels were too good to be true. River being able to use his lived experience to embody a character that had distinct parallels to his early life. The performance that ensued matched the powerhouse performances of Ford and Mirren. River stealing the screen as he played from his own experience. His childhood following his parents whims and ideas laid bare on screen for all to see.
Running on Empty (1988)
The Popes have been living a secret life since the 1960s. Their children – especially the oldest ‘Danny’ (Phoenix), having never known anything different. Danny’s life a rollercoaster of perpetual turmoil. Stability never guaranteed in school or home life.
The Popes radical 60s political actions still haunting every moment. However as their son grows, and his talent for music shines through. Both parents realise they can no longer keep moving him around to cover their own tracks.
Once again River found himself cast in picture that ultimately led to comparisons with his own life. The need to break free from parental control coupled with a longing for the comfort and safety of family at any cost. However, it was within his delicate, intelligent and precise portrayal of Danny that River showed his adult acting ability. Shaking off his young teenager cocoon and emerging as Oscar contender. Director Sydney Lumet allowing River to spread his wings after two distinctly average films with ‘Jimmy Reardon’ and ‘Little Nikita’. Both of which could have forever stereotyped Phoenix as a simple teen sex idol.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
I can hear the comments as a type this section. They range from; ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wasn’t a River Phoenix film’. Through to ‘River was only in the first 20 minutes of the action’. Well I beg to differ with the first of these statements. And while accepting the second, offer the the following thoughts.
River Phoenix gave us the perfect and indisputable young Indiana Jones. A character study that understood Harrison Fords older performance and layered it with youthful energy and wide-eyed wonder. Phoenix single handedly launching the film with one of the finest 20 minutes of opening action any film has ever seen. The only pity being that we never got to see more of Phoenix as the whip cracking young scout.
On release Dogfight was labelled as a romantic movie, however its themes run so much deeper than pure romance. The year is 1963 and Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) is enjoying a final night in San Francisco before being shipped to Vietnam. His marine buddies deciding to play a game of ‘dogfight’ otherwise known as seeing who can pick up the ugliest girl in town. However things quickly progress from game to real sexual attraction between River’s unconfident and immature ‘Birdlace’ and Lili Taylor’s Rose.
River embodies the character of a young marine while also giving a performance full of complexity. This is a character that could have easily been played as a typical hormonal young marine looking for a good time. However, in the hands of Phoenix we get a masterclass in nuance. The immaturity of Birdlace matched by the fear of the unknown; a boy hiding in the physic of a man. Phoenix’s Birdlace isn’t sure of himself, his role or the mission he is about to embark on. Rose a safety blanket and confidant as much as romantic interest. As he learns that love and attraction are based on more than pure image.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
You may think that a film based around male prostitution would focus on sex. But Gus Van Sant’s 1991 picture does not wrap itself in stereotypical themes of prostitution and sexuality. My Own Private Idaho plays with Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I and II. While placing its central characters into the urban bustle and rural beauty of Portland, Oregon. Dovetailing the freedom of wide-open landscapes with a suffocating yet intoxicating cityscape. Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (River Phoenix) care for each other, sharing their hopes and dreams in a nuanced mesh of male love and unrequited longing.
For both River and Keanu, ‘Idaho’ was a huge risk. After all this was a film centred around themes that were still taboo in early 90s America. Both men subverting their teen idol status in exploring street hustlers and sexuality. But for River this was also an opportunity to fully immerse himself in a character he could build. A character that could be shaped with a Director open to his creativity.
This urge to build the character of Mike, led River to spend nights on Portlands city streets. Talking with rent boys while momentarily living their life and dabbling in their work. His mission to ensure his character accurately gave voice to men and boys without one. The end result being one of the finest onscreen performances ever committed to celluloid. An Oscar worthy lead performance that was simply too risky for Hollywood attention.
Idaho takes us on an unforgettable journey of love in the midst of hurt, companionship and a dream like need for belonging and safety. Creating not only one of the finest LGBTQ films of the past 30 years. But also a film that shows the true talent of a young acting legend.